John Metzger's #10 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Tue October 2, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Joni Mitchell’s return to the recording studio for the first time in nearly 10 years was spurred not by her having had a change of heart over the state of the music business, which she once called repugnant, but rather by the urgency of the issues about which she cares most deeply. Summoned to her piano after basking in the picturesque beauty that surrounds her home in British Columbia, she composed One Week Last Summer, the stunningly elegant overture that introduces her latest endeavor Shine. Each note and each chord that she strikes rings warmly amidst the fluttering gracefulness of Bob Sheppard’s flights on alto saxophone and the collage of orchestrated sounds that dodge and weave about her. Mitchell’s gentle hymn is a song of sadness as well as a song of healing, and her renewed sense of purpose is what drives everything that follows.
For several decades, now, Mitchell has been walking along some rather darkened corridors, warning the world’s inhabitants about the problems they selfishly seem unwilling to face because of a falsely held, egotistical belief in their own invincibility. From Dog Eat Dog to Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm to Turbulent Indigo, she relentlessly has fought against the evils of the modern age. In a sense, Shine largely follows suit, and throughout the effort, she paints bleak portraits of global turmoil and environmental degradation. Not only does she view the Earth as a fallen Eden, but she also adopts a condescending tone regarding the loss of civility, while scoffing at the supposed advancements that propel popular culture. On Bad Dreams, she observes, "The cell phone zombies babble through the shopping malls." During Strong and Wrong, she exclaims, "Men love war," and on This Place, she declares, "Big money kicks the wide, wide world around."
Taken out of context, such statements undeniably sound condescending and trite, even to those who might agree with them. There’s no disputing the fact that, in the past, Mitchell has struggled, at times, to turn her anger and frustration over the state of the world into something lyrical and poetic. Once again, Mitchell is uncompromising in that she doesn’t pull her punches. Consequently, how one feels about Shine as a whole is likely to depend entirely upon one’s political ideology. Considering the overwhelming success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, however, there is a glimmer of hope that, perhaps, the planet is ripe for sweeping change, and this very well may have played a large role in Mitchell’s decision to end her self-imposed retirement. Although her signing with Starbuck’s Hear Music label is, at first glance, a little perplexing, it ought not to be viewed as a concession to capitalism but rather as her clever way of subverting it from within.
Still, Shine is quite different from Mitchell’s past musings. The many guests that served as distractions in her work during the 1980s have been left by the wayside, and although she utilizes an array of computerized effects, she counters the drum machine beats and manufactured orchestrations with lovely washes of alto and soprano saxophone, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and piano. The results are warmly organic rather than coldly synthetic, which in turn allows Shine to obtain the aura of a professionally polished, homegrown recording.
Over the years, Mitchell’s voice has been ravaged by time and cigarettes, and when she first begins to sing on This Place, Shine’s second track, she suitably sounds both mournful and weary. As the album progresses, she outlines the death and destruction that lie at every turn, from suicide bombers to genocidal warlords and from the corruption of religion and the perversion of spirituality to the raping of the Earth as a consequence of mankind’s disconnection from nature. Instead of being worn down, however, Mitchell gains strength from her journey. Battling to break through the discordant turbulence that envelopes Hana, she conveys the thoughts of the song’s central character, though in truth, she really is making a plea to herself — as well as to anyone who shares her perspective — to not give up the fight. As she presses her poetic depictions of the natural world against her pleas for salvation, Mitchell manages to strike a better balance than she has at any point in recent memory. She may be cantankerous and confrontational, but she also succeeds in illuminating the path upon which Mother Earth’s survival is utterly dependent. Shine, then, not only is a hymn for a dying planet, but it also is a beacon of hope, a prayer for mankind, and a call-to-arms that is meant to awaken those who have fallen into the slumber of fatalism.
50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Pop Instrumental Performance
One Week Last Summer
Of Further Interest...
Shine is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box